The death of Russian, and other myths

By Jeff Garcia

Chances are that by now, you know that Macalester’s Russian department is the first on the list of departments to be reviewed by the Educational Policy and Governance (EPAG) committee for possible discontinuation. Whether through The Mac Weekly’s coverage of the process, the chalk on the sidewalks, or the “Save Cheburashka” t-shirts, the news is everywhere. Russian students, such as myself, are angry and ready to speak up. And with good reason; Russian is one of the most vital languages in the world today, and one of the closest-knit departments at this college. The study of Russian in the U.S. has predictably been on the decline since the end of the Cold War, when having college-educated people speak Russian was a matter of national security. Schools downsized and eventually cut their programs, even though Russian is still considered a “critical need” language by the U.S. State Department. Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party have used sometimes-undemocratic policies to consolidate Moscow’s power, making reforms geared toward order and progress. Russia is talking over lucrative oil deals with China and its neighbors and being friendly with nations the U.S. ignores. Under Putin and his successor Dmitry Medvedev, the standard of living has risen. With a Putin campaign during the next election cycle, and no signs of slowing down, the Russian Federation is poised to continue its recovery and challenge the U.S. on many fronts. One doesn’t have to major in International Studies to see how a strong Russia will influence policy in China, India, and the Middle East. We need Russian speakers to be able to act as diplomats, interpreters, and educators to compete. Now is not the time to “discontinue” Russian at Mac. Beyond the political need for Russian, there are implications in this process that make me question how committed Macalester is to the work of educating “global citizens.” It seems that a school that went to the trouble of spending millions on a perfectly green building to house the IGC would make sure that the basics of completing its mission were covered. The most essential thing anyone can do to become more global is learn a new language. Russian is spoken in all the nations that make up the Commonwealth of Independent States (former Soviet republics). It is an official language of the United Nations. Yet, the department has been denied funding requests over the past few years. Why are languages falling by the wayside when new students are told that we are an internationalist school? The administration is totally disconnected from the situation—during the initial meeting about the process and how it would operate, EPAG’s chair asked if the department still had a Russian House. Putting the fate of a whole department with such a dedicated group of students in the hands of a few random people with scarce knowledge of it is foolish and wrong. Everyone I’ve met through taking Russian is dedicated to the department, friendly, and vocal in its defense. The professors are incredible, and I’ve learned more in a year of Russian than in six of Spanish. My comrades in Russian Studies and I will see the process through to the very end. We need the students and staff of Macalester to back us—this could be your department. Dlya matyeri Rossii!